Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film

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The versatility, vitriol and vision of Michael Curtiz - Book Review

book cover photo of Michael Curtiz
 Book Review by Mark Burger January 24, 2018MICHAEL CURTIZ: A LIFE IN FILM by Alan K. Rode. Published by University Press of Kentucky. 630 pages. $50 retail.


Given his many classic films – which include Angels With Dirty Faces (1938), Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) and Casablanca (1943), to name only a few – there’s no such thing as a quintessential Michael Curtiz film, nor did he evince a specific directorial style. There are filmmakers today whose work is referred to as “Hitchcockian,” “Capra-esque,” “Spielbergian,” “Tarantino-esque,” “Kubrickian,” or “Hawksian,” but Michael Curtiz has no such designation.

Yet this prolific filmmaker, with over 180 credits to his name, made some of the most revered films of their time, if not all time – in any number of genres. He made gangster films, grand adventures, horror films, musicals, melodramas and period pieces. If there was a film to make, he’d make it – usually with antagonizing cast, crew, and studios along the way. For a remarkably long period, he got away with it, simply because he got results. Love him or hate him – and people were squarely divided –Curtiz was a moviemaker. This was his life, making the subtitle of Alan K. Rode’s epic biography a most appropriate one.

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NOIR TALK - Alan K. Rode Interview

Episode 11: Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film, with Alan K. Rode

Click to listen to interview. 

Film Noir Foundation charter director and treasurer Alan K. Rode joins us to discuss his new biography of Michael Curtiz, one of classic Hollywood's greatest directors. We start with Curtiz's early life and career in Europe (2:45), his first years in Hollywood (11:15), and his wife and close collaborator Bess Meredyth (14:35). Then we talk about his breakthrough success with Captain Blood and other hits with Errol Flynn, including The Adventures of Robin Hood and The Sea Hawk (17:15). We also discuss the peak of Curtiz's career with Yankee Doodle Dandy (28:05) and Casablanca (34:40).

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The Politics of Yankee Doodle Dandy

yankee doodle dandy movie poster featuring James Cagney

The notion for a biographical film about legendary show business powerhouse George M. Cohan had been kicking around Hollywood since the late 1930s. The father of American musical comedy claimed to be born on July 4, 1878 and began treading the boards at age eight in the family vaudeville act. During his career, he wrote more than 150 original songs, including the standards “You’re a Grand Old Flag” and the country’s most popular song during World War I, “Over There.” Cohan produced more than fifty musicals and plays.  At one point, five of his shows, co-produced with Sam Harris, ran simultaneously on Broadway. Cohan did it all: he was a playwright, composer, lyricist, actor, singer, dancer, and producer.

By 1941 he was ill and realized that his days were numbered. His ego was piqued by the notion of a movie biography to enshrine his legacy (he had already published his autobiography at the age of forty-seven), but he had serious misgivings about films. He had appeared in several silent movies that failed to capture his feisty style. After his popularity began to fade, Cohan starred in two early talkies.  His second picture, The Phantom President (1932), was a fiasco. Cohan compared the experience to a stretch at Leavenworth Penitentiary and vowed never to return to Hollywood.

In his much publicized Anglo-Hungarian diction, Michael Curtiz described Yankee Doodle Dandy as “ the pinochle of my career.

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